Myung-Sook Cho
Ashoka Fellow since 2015   |   South Korea

Myung-Sook Cho

Dawn School
For most North Korean refugees settling in South Korea in search of a better life, the readjustment process quickly turns into a swim-or-sink game of survival. The refugees grapple with debilitating…
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This description of Myung-Sook Cho's work was prepared when Myung-Sook Cho was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


For most North Korean refugees settling in South Korea in search of a better life, the readjustment process quickly turns into a swim-or-sink game of survival. The refugees grapple with debilitating mental trauma inflicted on them before, during, and after their escape from the totalitarian state, a harrowing journey that often takes multiple years to complete. With the trauma left unattended, the suicide and school dropout rates are disproportionately high among North Korean refugees, as they struggle to overcome multiple challenges including financial difficulties and adjust from an authoritarian state to a highly competitive society at the same time. Working with North Korean youths, Myung Sook offers a new educational model that empowers these severely traumatized individuals to become thriving members of the South Korean community.

The New Idea

In addition to the mental burden of transiting to a new society, many youth refugees from North Korea find themselves struggling with PTSD -- developed firstly in North Korea and later during the escape. To cater to unique educational and mental health care needs of North Korean refugee youths, Myung Sook designed a new school that strikes a balance between the mental health, social readjustment and academic functions of education. Under the existing, state-led support system, refugee youths are encouraged to enroll in ordinary public schools, and even the "misfits" who have hard time keeping up with the studies and fitting into the culture are usually advised to take the GED exam to quickly obtain educational credentials. Either way, the emphasis goes on efficient assimilation into mainstream society, and most Korean policymakers assume that the best way to ensure acculturation would be through academic achievement. Myung Sook, on the other hand, believes that everyone must be entitled to be educated in such ways that are best tailored to their needs and circumstances. Accordingly, Myung Sook seeks to restore a sense of wholeness to her students and their families. At Dawn School founded by Myung Sook, students overcome trauma and recover human dignity -- something that had been all but destroyed and lost under the totalitarian rule and during the escape. Dawn School thus aims at raising resilient individuals and responsible citizens, who are ready to build a bountiful, meaningful life for themselves, and eager to make meaningful contributions to the community.
Rather than pushing refugee students to fit into existing norms, Myung Sook chose to work at students' convenience, and designed a new school system that accommodates every possible need of a refugee student. Dawn School serves as a one-stop platform that offers formal education, mental health support, and social immersion programs all at once. Noteworthy is the fact that Dawn School became the first state-accredited alternative school for North Korean youths (Under South Korean law, only state-accredited schools may issue official diplomas -- students attending "unofficial" schools must take the GED exam to be acknowledged as high school graduates, regardless of their school attendance or performance.). This breakthrough liberates students from the burden of exam preparation and encourages them to partake in various non-academic programs to promote mental health and social readjustment. To take care of mental health, Dawn School operates a separate therapy space monitored by psychiatric specialists, so that the students do not have to spend extra time and resource to visit clinics. As for the social inclusion, instead of opting for rural settings to save costs as most alternative schools do, Myung Sook recognized the importance of situating her students right at the center of busy urban life, so that everyday school run can double up as immersive social studies lessons to assist their cultural readjustment. Above all, Myung Sook makes sure her students are surrounded with an extensive support network of instructors and volunteers. This support team work together to help students overcome debilitating trauma and grow into empathetic young changemakers.
Eventually, Myung Sook aims to pave the way for the Korean public education system to shed its one-size-fits-all homogeneity, and embrace the divergent needs of emergent minority groups. Ultimately, she seeks to upgrade the flexibility and openness of Korean society, to help them cope with demographic shifts -- most notably the recent surge in immigration -- with competence and resilience. Myung Sook urges key educational and administrative stakeholders to acknowledge the important roles played by alternative educational institutions serving minority groups like North Korean youths, immigrant students, and public school drop-outs. Thanks to her efforts, the government did undertake systemic reforms to make it easier for small independent schools to obtain suitable financial assistance and state accreditation, as such schools are often best equipped with professional expertise to deal with those minority students effectively. Ultimately, Myung Sook hopes to create flexible, open cultural and systemic foundation, to enable Korean society to embrace minorities and immigrants without conflict and confusion.

The Problem

Every year, about 1,500 North Koreans undertake a dangerous escape across the border and reach South Korean territory in search of greater freedoms and better life. Since 1997, when the number of refugees suddenly spiked due to severe famine in North Korea, South Korea has received up to 3,000 immigrants from the North per year, and the number of North Korean refugees in South Korea currently amounts to 28,000 (as of June 2015). Since it is impossible to cross the Demilitarized Zone standing between two Koreas, which, its name notwithstanding, remains the most heavily armed border in the world, all North Korean escapees must take a long detour stretching through China and multiple neighboring countries (typically Thailand or Laos). During the danger-fraught journey, the refugees, of whom about 70 percent are women, become subject to such traumatic experiences as human trafficking, forced marriage, or relentless threat of deportation. By the time they step into South Korean territory, most of them are physically and mentally broken people, with various psychiatric and medical needs.
While most of these refugees need to undergo extensive mental health care in order to recover a sense of wholeness and dignity, the existing readjustment support system does not recognize mental health as priority, yet still expects them to assimilate to the mainstream community as quickly as possible. While many people with psychological issues could first turn to their families for support and care, most North Korean refugee families struggle with disintegration and economic hardships, and are often unable to function as the source of such emotional comfort. Moreover, many North Korean immigrants find it difficult to perform simple daily tasks that are almost intuitive to most South Korean adolescents, such as ordering coffee, buying a movie ticket through automated vending machines, or resolving interpersonal conflicts through conversations, rather than through brawls and exaggerated criticisms as is customary in North Korea's military culture. While such rudimentary social skills must be learned through a full immersion in the new environment and culture, most youth refugees are too exhausted to explore the unfamiliar culture with curiosity and passion, nor do they, with their family in virtual ruins, have a safe haven to keep them grounded and inspired throughout the confusing resettlement process.
The governmental emphasis on fast acculturation adds an additional burden on the already-difficult life of youth refugees, who struggle with lingering trauma and emotionally-strained family life. The public education in South Korea is not yet prepared to accommodate a new minority group; its designers catered it to a stable, homogenous community, rather than the diverse, dynamic population that Korean society is rapidly transforming into. The affected youths face a diversity of systemic and cultural challenges, including the integration into a notoriously competitive South Korean academic culture. Further barriers to educational attainment include the need to submit formal proof of academic credentials obtained in North Korea. Even those who make it through the complex paperwork to enroll in school must then adjust to a new curriculum which operates through a radically different value system. Public school teachers and students can hardly empathize with these unique personal issues, leaving refugee students even further estranged from the mainstream society.
Myung Sook decided that the standard adjustment process becomes an excruciating ordeal for most North Korean youths and puts them at an unfair disadvantage. This is especially true, considering how regular public schools are not even an option for many youth refugees. Some have yet to recover from the mental trauma inflicted during the escape, and those whose stay in third countries was prolonged, are already in their twenties by the time they reach South Korea - well past typical school-age range. While alternative schools were established to cater to the special needs of such youths, such independent institutions usually suffered from chronic financial shortage, and were often unable to provide sustainable, wholesome education to raise healthy citizens.
Such shortcomings of the existing support system have generated disturbing consequences in the refugee community. The suicide rate among North Korean refugees is three times as high as the South Korean average, which is already higher than that of any other OECD state (Korean Ministry of Unification, 2012). The dropout rate of North Korean refugee youth is three times that of their native counterparts (joint survey conducted by the Ministry of Unification and Korea Hana Foundation, 2014) The unemployment rate among North Korean immigrants is three times as high as the national average, and their wage level was mere two-thirds that of the native population on average (Ibid, 2014).
With the influx of new demographic groups, South Korean society stands at the cusp of a watershed moment. South Korean society had been extremely homogenous for centuries, and many dimensions of the socioeconomic system are not sufficiently prepared to deal with newcomers to the community. The political instability in North Korea signifies the possibility of sudden refugee crises in near future.
Working with the most marginalized group of youths, Myung Sook locates systemic problems that put minority students at an unfair disadvantage, and urges South Koreans to reconsider "otherness" with empathy and tolerance. By creating a functional model of transforming refugee youths from powerless dependents on the welfare system to thriving citizens, Myung Sook seeks to help the Korean community develop capacities to deal with future demographic shifts.

The Strategy

Myung Sook's systemic efforts to ensure the resettlement of North Korean youths can be broken down into three parts: design, certify, and reform.
Myung Sook designed a new, functional educational model for North Korean refugee youths, specifically with the goal of curing them of debilitating trauma. This redefinition of education is in accordance with Myung Sook's own professional philosophy -- that the role of an educator is not just to impart knowledge and skills, but to make her pupils whole. Accordingly, education takes place both inside and outside of classrooms at Dawn School. Each dormitory houses fewer than ten students, and a residential superintendent is assigned to each dorm to act as a houseparent. Residents are grouped into a dorm family, which provides the emotional care and familial support that the youth desperately need. The familial atmosphere encourages open, empathetic conversation, which in itself proves therapeutic for those who are not used to vocalizing their troubles and sorrows. Dawn School is also the first to incorporate regular art and music therapy programs led by specialists into its curriculum, so that the students can recover from trauma just by coming to school every day, without spending extra time and resources. A safety net of love and support surrounds refugee students in all dimensions of their lives, ensuring that the educational environment promote wellness as much as academic achievements.
Thus having restored a sense of familial and emotional stability to her students' lives, Myung Sook created a number of educational initiatives that would help North Korean youths get accustomed to unfamiliar societal norms and practices. "Urban Exploration" Program, in that light, constitutes an important part of Dawn School's curriculum. In the program, students go downtown by public transit, and perform small tasks like buying movie tickets to watch latest movies in groups. These simple excursions expose refugee students to numerous aspects of the society, from completing small transactions to getting familiarized with confusing foreign loanwords ("popcorns") and Southernisms. The experience of successfully performing such small tasks instills in them a lasting sense of confidence, empowering them to venture outside their comfort zone even further. The integrative education culminates in the annual Day of Dawn event, where students dispel any lingering fears of the new environment and deliver speeches before a thousand South and North Korean people to manifest their self-confidence and courage.
At the same time, in order not to overlook the significance of providing quality academic lessons, Myung Sook has made it a rule to hire as many licensed teachers as the school can afford. This was a strategic choice, based firstly on Myung Sook's observation that adolescents tend to show more respect towards professional, rather than volunteer, teachers, and secondly on the insight that professionalization of the school would be the best way to ensure its accreditation in the future. Subsequently, Dawn School has earned the title one of the best-respected alternative education institutions, and has already graduated 170 inspired students so far. Dawn's reputation is attracting more and more students, and the enrollment is growing annually.
In 2010, after a lengthy negotiation process, Myung Sook brought about a significant reform in the alternative school law. Formerly, a school applying to receive state accreditation had to own a building and a playground of its own. As many alternative schools operated on a limited budget and typically occupied leased spaces, the ownership requirement made it virtually impossible for an alternative school to be acknowledged as an official educational institution. Yet another issue was the lack of guidelines that would accord standard and alternative school curriculums some degree of consistency: which subjects could be electives, for instance, and which could not? Which subjects a young Korean citizen must learn, regardless of their ethnic, socioeconomic, or regional backgrounds? While directly concerning a small group of facilities, these questions pointed to a bigger issue of restructuring the entire value system underlying the Korean public education, to make it more integrative and more flexible.
Myung Sook played a central role in the policy reengineering process, to rid the accreditation law of unnecessary requirements and establish a set of clear guidelines regarding the quality and the constitution of the curriculum. One of the first to be removed was the building ownership requirement, which struck most people as unreasonable. As a result, smaller schools without means to purchase so much real estate could now apply to receive accreditation, as long as they had suitable educational space (e.g. a leased building and a playground shared with a nearby school) and hired a certain number of licensed instructors.
Subsequently, Dawn School became the first alternative school for North Korean youths to receive official accreditation. Following the reform, the government recognized the importance of Dawn School's role in the community, and has recently begun to subsidize a substantial portion of the school budget - approximately one million USD per year, which amounts to about 44 percent of Dawn's total expenditure. The change signifies that Dawn School is no longer an outlier, but an integrated contributor to the public education system. Dawn School has also thus secured substantial financial sustainability for years to come, rendering long-term planning and attempts at scale-up far easier than before.
Using the success at Dawn School as evidence, Myung Sook urges the government to acknowledge special needs of her students, and reevaluate the current public education system that presupposes a very homogenous socio-demographic group, native-born ethnic Korean youths. At the same time, she inspires other special schools to follow Dawn's suit to get accredited, as the reform made it much easier for independent schools accommodating "special groups" - i.e. North Korean refugees, children from multicultural backgrounds, or those who dropped out of school - to receive accreditation. As such, Myung Sook is building a foundation to make alternative education a more viable option for many. To that end, she consistently persuades key stakeholders to implement legal reforms to broaden the scope of public education, so that it can accommodate a wider variety of minority groups whose needs are not adequately met in regular public schools.
Yet another group of pivotal players in the field are schoolteachers at regular public schools. While eighty percent of North Korean youths opt to attend ordinary public schools, most teachers are completely unprepared to deal with North Korean students, due to ideological differences, lack of experience, and/or cultural insensitivity. Seeing how ineffectual it is to leave teachers to wrestle with the situation all by themselves, Myung Sook partnered with a German foundation, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, to carry out a series of "Reunification School" workshops and lectures. These programs train and empower every teacher to overcome the barrier of cultural unfamiliarity and become a passionate changemaker in the field.
At the same time, Myung Sook is keenly aware of the necessity of reforms at a more micro level -- down-to-earth, little changes that affect people's life just as much as long-term legal and administrative breakthroughs. Her insights, accumulated over years of intensive fieldwork, touch every minute component of the support system, where she locates systemic obstacles and removes them. For instance, Myung Sook increased the number of secondary school qualification exams, formerly held once a year, to twice a year, so that students would not have to wait for another year to take the test when they do not pass. Reforms like this minimize the legwork and save time for everyone attempting to navigate the difficult process of resettlement, and help the government reassess its practices with a critical eye.
Over the past decade, Myung Sook established herself as an indisputable maven in the field of education for North Korean refugee youths. That she was recently invited to join the Presidential Unification Preparatory Committee - as the only member who does not have any background in politics or academia, but proved her expertise solely through field work - demonstrates her position as the go-to mediator between the field and the government. Leveraging her special position, Myung Sook is currently turning Dawn School into an expansive platform that attracts a number of interested mavens, educators, business partners, and policymakers. The network plays a significant role in transforming the national discourse regarding the integration and the resettlement of North Korean refugees. Several businesses and NGOs have recently come together with Dawn School to develop a mobile app, "Language Buddy," to help North Korean youths with the linguistic adjustment, and Dawn School teachers are currently authoring a guidebook that delineates some important tips for instructing and communicating with North Korean youths. As such, Myung Sook is building and mobilizing a vibrant network of changemakers, with the goal of building a more diverse, more open, and more integrative society for everyone. Having secured a degree of sustainability and stability at the home ground at Dawn, Myung Sook now prepares to found another "Unification Leadership Model School," which will admit not just North Korean refugee youths, but students from other socioeconomically marginalized groups, to offer a premier model of integrative education for the entire national community to witness and learn from.

The Person

Myung Sook was born to an impoverished family, and grew up in a quasi-slum neighborhood. Nonetheless, her mother, who held diverse jobs - from factory work to rice-wine peddling to small business operation - to feed her children, always prepared warm meals for the homeless whenever they came begging. Myung Sook's mother never ignored another person's suffering, and her empathetic lifestyle served as a lifelong influence on Myung Sook's worldview. Since there was no elementary school in proximity to the district, Myung Sook had to walk for an hour to get to school. The school was located in a relatively affluent neighborhood, and little Myung Sook had to socialize with upper-middle-class peers for the first time in her life. Slum kids could not readily mingle with their well-to-do classmates, and many of Myung Sook's friends chose to discontinue their education after a few years. Myung Sook witnessed how socioeconomic disparity manifested in the form of disunity and lack of solidarity even between the youngest members of the community.
A crucial turning point in young Myung Sook's life began with a phone call from a Pakistani immigrant laborer, who had dialed Myung Sook's number by mistake. Myung Sook stayed on the line nonetheless, and listened to the story of the stranger, although she spoke little English. The laborer was looking for someone to help his dying friend, who had fallen gravely ill due to an industrial accident. Talking to him, she realized that life was harder for foreign immigrants from developing countries, than for the poor in a rich country. The ill laborer's former employer, however, had no legal responsibility to pay him, and the injured laborer eventually died. Myung Sook, then 21 years old, boldly addressed the first case of foreign worker’s death due to an industrial accident. With 14 immigrants -- all former victims of industrial accidents -- she went on a demonstration. At the end of three months, she finally accomplished a key labor reform: all immigrants could now be paid out through occupational health and safety insurance. Previously, a Korean laborer working for a small-scale manufacturer (with fewer than 5 employees) could not get compensated for the injuries they received in an industrial accident. Now that all foreign laborers were entitled to compensation according to the reformed law, all Korean laborers were given the same right to due compensation, no matter how many employees there were in the workplace, according to the legal equality principle. She found that, if quality of life improves for those at the margins of society, the entire society can benefit from the shift. Subsequently, she joined the Shelter for Immigrant Laborers as a staff member, helping foreign laborers with various legal issues involving industrial accidents and human rights violation.
In 1997, a major fraud case consisting of ten thousand individual charges was uncovered by the Shelter and became a huge social issue. A majority of the ten thousand victims were Chinese-Korean people (ethnic Koreans of Chinese nationality), who had paid a huge sum of money to a scam job broker in order to get jobs in Korea. To get a better idea of what actually happened, Myung Sook, then a newlywed bride, and her husband Ho Taek Lee, the Director of the Shelter, chose Northeast China as their honeymoon spot. In China, Myung Sook met North Korean refugees, who were living as undocumented fugitives in the alien land, constantly pursued by the Chinese police and the human trafficking cartel alike. After a lengthy, serious discussion, the newlyweds decided to take some refugees with them back to South Korea, although they were fully aware that they must risk their lives to do so. Taking thirteen North Korean refugees with them, Myung Sook and her husband embarked on a long, dangerous journey to South Korea, crossing the continent and passing through the landmine-packed Vietnamese border. Nonetheless, the team managed to deliver all thirteen refugees into South Korean territory.
Back in Korea, Myung Sook intentionally refrained from contacting the thirteen refugees, because they might feel indebted to her for saving their lives. When she met them again in two years, however, the youths had dropped out of school, and the grown-ups had gone bankrupt beyond recovery. In North Korea, the Party had made every single decision for them. It was their first time trying to decide everything on their own, and, out of confusion, they had made some detrimental life decisions. At this point, Myung Sook realized more fundamental solutions are needed. She graduated from social activism, to commence her career as a social entrepreneur and an educator. Back then, there was a prevailing sense of defeatism when it came to working with North Korean refugees, because no one seemed to be able to produce any meaningful results out of such projects. Myung Sook, however, would not let any dissuasive comments deter her, and turned her tiny, poorly lit office into an evening school for North Korean young adults. To everyone's surprise, the school was a huge success, and attracted more and more young people coming to learn and volunteer. The school and the community around it kept growing, eventually to play an integral role in the establishment of Dawn School in 2004.

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